On this day in WNC history: As the contentious and pivotal election of 1898 drew near, Senator Jeter C. Pritchard sent two private letters to President William McKinley and his cabinet on October 21, urging them to send federal marshals to protect African American voting in North Carolina and to keep the peace. He detailed the actions of future senator Furnifold Simmons, Josephus Daniels, and other white supremacists to intimidate and disarm Black voters, particularly in the eastern portion of the state.
Pritchard, raised in northeastern Tennessee and Madison County, North Carolina, edited a Republican newspaper before becoming a lawyer and state legislator. In 1895, he won the special election to replace deceased senator Zebulon Vance, becoming the first Republican in the former Confederate states elected to the Senate in nearly twenty years, and the last until Strom Thurmond of South Carolina switched his affiliation in 1957. Pritchard was vaulted to power in the period of fusionist alliances between populists, African Americans, and disgruntled voters who also placed Republican Daniel Russell in the governor’s office. Pritchard’s two elections by the Fusionist/Republican majority in the NC legislature owed heavily to the support of African American voters, and he promoted generally progressive racial policies in turn.
The McKinley cabinet quickly considered Pritchard’s warning, but the attorney general informed him no action could be taken unless Governor Russell requested assistance or the postal service was affected. Pritchard’s letter was quickly leaked to the press and Josephus Daniels of the Raleigh News and Observer editorialized sensationally that the senator was “invok[ing] bayonet rule.” Compared to the election of 1896, it appears African Americans in Asheville may have turned out in similar numbers to vote. Elsewhere in the state, many others were intimidated or barred, while some were also away in the armed services. Cpt. Thomas Leatherwood – commander of a company of Black soldiers from WNC stationed in Knoxville, Tennessee – was noted as the only member of his regiment able to return home and vote. The election proceeded with Democrats nearly sweeping the state, instigating a massacre and coup in Wilmington, and ushering in an era of one party rule.